A YA Novel Takes On Mental Health

Book Reviews Notes from the Classroom

highly-illogical-behaviorYoung adult (YA) literature often gets a bad rap. As a high school librarian, I hear the worst of the stereotypes often. One of the most common is that YA literature is too “dark” or “heavy” or “moody.” I find this perspective perplexing.

“Dark” murder mysteries and spy thrillers dominate adult best-seller lists. The independent novels that seem to thrive and become blockbuster films are often “heavy” (e.g., Roomby Emma Donoghue; Orphan Train, by Christina Baker Kline; and Me Before You, by JoJo Moyes). Many assume that teenagers want to read about serious, unappealing life issues like death, addiction, and mental health concerns because teenagers are “moody.” They don’t imagine that teenagers would search for literature featuring characters their age, dealing with legitimate life events in a realistic and not-always-happy way.

Over the summer, I read John Corey Whaley’s latest book, Highly Illogical Behavior, and found what might be the perfect book about a serious issue for both teenagers and the people who love them.

The Plot

High school senior Lisa desperately wants to get into a top psychology program and leave her former life in the past. But she is stumped by her entrance essay, which requires her to write about a “personal experience with mental health.”

Then she remembers Solomon, the boy from eighth grade who had a panic attack, jumped in a fountain on campus, and never came back to school. He’s the boy that she believes no longer leaves his house–ever. If she can find him, and “fix” him, she can write the perfect entrance essay, complete with a neat and tidy solution. But getting to know Solomon, and letting him into her life, changes them both in ways that neither could ever have predicted, which makes it pretty hard for Lisa to come clean about why she befriended him in the first place. Can their newfound friendship survive if it is based on a lie?

Why It’s Worth Reading

There is most definitely some hard-hitting reality in this book. Agoraphobia is not a frequently discussed mental health issue, especially as it pertains to teenagers. Lisa’s relationships with Solomon and her boyfriend, Clark, are incredibly complex and not always pretty.

But John Corey Whaley’s characteristic writing style is also filled with humor, sarcasm, and enough levity to make this book seem like less of a downer than some of its companions. I found myself chuckling at Solomon and Clark’s conversations, or at nearly everything that Solomon’s dad utters. It’s a “serious issue” book that teens can enjoy and adults can embrace.

And while the story was predictable at a few points, I found myself compelled to read it–while I was brushing my teeth every night, for example, because I just couldn’t wait two more minutes to get started. I think it’s because Whaley writes supremely believable, realistic, honest characters. They’re characters that remind you of people you know in real life. He makes you care about them and what’s going to happen to them, even if you think you probably already know where they are headed.

That’s what made this book appealing and kept me reading as I drooled toothpaste down my shirt. Grab a copy and spend a couple of minutes reading Highly Illogical Behavior while you brush your teeth. I guarantee you won’t want to stop.

Book Details

Reading Level: Lexile = HL700L
ISBN: 9780525428183
Format: Hardcover
Publisher: Dial Books
Publication Date: May 10,2016
Awards/Accolades: Four starred reviews in four months. Watch this one during award season–Whaley has already won a Printz, a Moris, and been a National Book Award finalist.
Source: Penguin First To Read (I received a free e-galley in exchange for my honest opinion.)

pic of meBethany Bratney (@nhslibrarylady) is a National Board Certified School Librarian at Novi High School and was the recipient of the 2015 School Librarian of the Year Award. She reviews YA materials for School Library Connection magazine and for the LIBRES review group. She is an active member of the Oakland Schools Library Media Leadership Consortium as well as the Michigan Association of Media in Education. She received her BA in English from Michigan State University and her Masters of Library & Information Science from Wayne State University.


A Great Graphic Novel to Engage Students

Book Reviews Notes from the Classroom

nimonaThe world can be separated into two groups—those who read graphic novels and those who don’t. Many adults still struggle with the value of a graphic novel. They wonder: Isn’t a graphic novel just a glorified comic book? How literary can a book full of pictures be?

Those of us who read and enjoy graphic novels know the truth—a good graphic novel can provide a reader with just as much literary merit as any other book. And when it comes to engaging reluctant or challenged readers, the possibilities inherent in a strong graphic novel only continue to grow.

So how does one target the good graphic novels? Follow a book blogger who reads them, of course! I just finished a fantastic graphic novel that has been nominated and/or won numerous awards (see Book Details below), and was even on the long list for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, amongst a cohort of standard prose novels. Read on to find out what makes Nimona, by Noelle Stevenson, so wonderful!

The Plot

Lord Ballister Blackheart is a villain. He has been one ever since he was kicked out of the The Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics, after being betrayed by his childhood friend, Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin. They are now sworn enemies.

When snarky, shape-shifting Nimona shows up to become his evil sidekick, Blackheart is unenthusiastic. He does not now nor has he ever needed a sidekick. But Nimona proves to be rather useful, turning into ferocious beasts when they are faced with danger, or masquerading as an innocent child when they are working undercover. He may have to keep her around after all.

To Blackheart’s great surprise, the open book he thinks he has found in Nimona has a mysterious past, the kind of legend that may be her downfall. Will they be able to overcome these new obstacles together?

​Why It’s Worth Reading

Graphic novels can cover so much ground and come in so many different packages. It is instantly clear that one reason to read Nimona is the artwork. Beautiful, full-color illustrations accompany the story from start to finish.

But the story itself should not be overlooked. What starts off reading as an obvious hero-vs.-villain comic book, complete with fight scenes and crazy weapons, becomes a more humorous and complex tale with every page. Nimona’s attitude and hilarious dialogue set her apart as a character to remember, and the conclusion is surprisingly heart warming, despite both Blackheart’s and Nimona’s attempts to stay disconnected and distant from the other characters.

Not to be too practical here, but if fantastic images and an exciting, yet touching, story aren’t enough, there’s also the time factor involved in reading a graphic novel. Though you can spend as much time as you’d like pouring over the art as well as the text, reading a story propelled by pictures is never going to take as long as one driven strictly by text. You might be able to make it through a graphic novel in less than half the time it would take you to read a prose novel. Plus, some interesting studies show that your brain will access this kind of story in a completely different way as a result of the visual component.

If you’ve been thinking about trying out a graphic novel, grab a copy of this one. It’s a fast, exciting, even slightly moving way to dip your toes into the graphic novel pool.

​Book Details

Reading Level: AR = 3.1, Lexile = GN350L
ISBN: 9780062278234
Format: Hardcover
Publisher: Harper Teen
Publication Date: May 12, 2015
Awards: Tons! Long list for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, Slate Cartoonist Studio Prize for Best Web Comic, Harvey Award for Best Online Comics Work, Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards Nominee for Best Digital/Web Comic, Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Graphic Novels & Comics.

pic of me Bethany Bratney (@nhslibrarylady) is a National Board Certified School Librarian at Novi High School and is the recent recipient of the 2015 School Librarian of the Year Award.  She reviews YA materials for School Library Connection magazine and for the LIBRES review group.  She is an active member of the Oakland Schools Library Media Leadership Consortium as well as the Michigan Association of Media in Education.  She received her BA in English from Michigan State University and her Masters of Library & Information Science from Wayne State University.


A New Year’s Reading Party

Notes from the Classroom

dress upHaving a son in elementary school has really been eye opening. My first grader seems to always be partying for something at his school: Spirit Days, Game Days, Thursdays. And you know what? That kid loves school.

Sometimes at the high school level we focus so much on content, I think, that we squeeze all the fun out of school. Don’t get me wrong—my students work really hard. So hard, in fact, that I’ve likened them to
water buffalos in the past. But they’re still kids, and they like to have fun. Learning can and should be fun sometimes.

So, as we were nearing the end of the semester, I decided we needed to have a reading party. It would have a New Year’s Eve theme. We could set Reading Resolutions for the new year.

It started as a gimmicky way to make a reading day a little more special. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it had the potential to be a powerful day for my students’ lives as readers.

I enlisted the help of our school librarian, and our party plan started to take shape. Twenty minutes of independent reading at the beginning of the hour—more than the 10 minutes of independent reading we do every day. At the 20-minute mark, we’d drop the ball (a YouTube video of the Times Square Ball Drop), and then the party would start. We’d have three stations for about 10 minutes each.

Station One: Your TBR (to-be-read) List

listOur librarian led the students in a discussion about books they want to read. Between the books they already wanted to read and some suggestions from our librarian, each class was able to generate a huge TBR list.

→Why is this a key activity for readers? Reading guru Donalyn Miller explains best in her book Reading in the Wild:Improving students’ ability to choose their own books begins with lots of positive reading experiences and frequent opportunities to preview, share and discuss books. Making this list as a group, with the help of our librarian, was a reminder to my students that they can and should get recommendations from their peers. AND there is a pretty useful adult right in our building—the librarian!—who can help them track those books down.

Station Two: Snacks and Visitors

Kids ate and talked with visiting teachers about their favorite books. This required a little planning. Prior to the party, I asked the students whom I should invite. Some teachers couldn’t make it, but they sent lists of book recommendations, which we posted on the wall. Our superintendent even sent a video recommendation!

→Why is this a key activity for readers? Students need to see adult readers in their lives. Some of my science-y kids, for instance, were interested to hear a popular Physics teacher talk about reading Unwind, by Neal Shusterman. In their heads, he curls up with Physics textbooks every night. But seeing their non-English teacher as a reading role model is key. These kinds of experiences help students commit to lifelong reading.

Station Three: Reading Resolutions

On small whiteboards, students wrote resolutions for the new year of reading. Then they dressed up with silly props for a picture. Most resolutions fell into three categories:

  • Quantity: Many students made goals to increase their reading outside school. I encouraged them to make that commitment specific, and I’ll follow up with those kids to help them hold themselves accountable.
  • Purpose: Some made resolutions about reading more for fun. I’ll be encouraging those students to ask for recommendations and to try lots of different genres.
  • ​​Quality: Some made resolutions to expand the type of reading they do. I’ll work with those students to find a new favorite genre.

whiteboardsThis last station was key for the students. Research proves that clear goals lead to higher achievement and increased motivation.

But clear goals are key for me, too. Now I have pretty clear marching orders for our second semester. I know which kids need which kinds of nudges (or shoves!) from me. I will print the pictures of students holding their resolutions, and I’ll post them in the classroom along with their TBR lists, in order to serve as inspiration all spring.

Not all my kids made resolutions or had their pictures taken. Unfortunately (or fortunately) for them, that short list of students is now a high priority for me. I know who my most resistant readers are, and I know who needs the most encouragement from me.

The day was incredibly beneficial. We took time to read. We celebrated good books. We continued building a supportive, engaged reading community.

But, we also had a lot of fun. That’s important, too.

Hattie profileHattie Maguire is an English teacher and Content Area Leader at Novi High School. She is spending her fifteenth year in the classroom teaching AP English Language and Composition and English 10. She is a National Board Certified Teacher who earned her BS in English and MA in Curriculum and Teaching from Michigan State University.